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  • Light May Control Future MEMS
Jun 2007
RIVERSIDE, Calif., June 1, 2007 -- A beam of light has been used to change the weak attraction between close objects, making the remote operation of micromachines a possibility.

Mohideen.jpgA research team led by Umar Mohideen, a physicist and physics professor at the University of California, Riverside, demonstrated in the laboratory that the Casimir force -- the small attractive force that acts between two close parallel uncharged conducting plates -- can be changed using a beam of light, which could lead to the remote operation of micromachines.

The Casimir force results when the properties of “virtual photons” are modified. While a photon is the carrier particle of electromagnetic interactions, a virtual photon is a particle that exists for so brief an instant as an intermediary in a process that it can never be directly observed.

Because virtual photons are ever-present in empty space, studying the Casimir force allows physicists to learn the properties of the quantum nature of space. In their study, Mohideen and his colleagues used a ball and a flat plate to simulate two parallel plates. “Where the ball and plate are close to each other, the surfaces are considered to be almost parallel at microscopic distances,” said Mohideen.

In each of his experiments, the ball (diameter 200 µm) was made of gold, a chemically clean metal that does not tarnish; only the material that made up the flat plate varied from experiment to experiment.

In one such experiment, the researchers used a plate of silicon, a material commonly used in the semiconductor industry, and measured the “carrier density” or the number of electrons in the plate.

They then compared the Casimir force that arose each time between the gold ball and a series of silicon plates of different carrier densities. They found that the Casimir force was measurably different between the ball and any two silicon plates only when the carrier density of one plate was at least 10,000 times larger than the carrier density of the second plate.

“We then asked ourselves if it was possible to bring about this density difference in other ways,” Mohideen said.

The researchers next experimented with the gold ball and a silicon plate with identical carrier densities. Training a beam of light on the plate, they were able to change the plate’s carrier density by an amount that was enough to change the Casimir force between the plate and the ball.

When light is absorbed by silicon, photons are converted into positive and negative charges, Mohideen said. It is the increase in the number of electrons (negative charges) that increases the Casimir force. “Using this result, it should be possible now to make special probes that can check for changes in electron density,” he added. “It can be used, too, to make new micromachines that can be remotely operated simply by using light.”

Micromachines, also known as microelectromechanical systems (MEMS),  find applications in complex systems of tiny gears and levers. They are used to reroute light between optical fibers in optical communication, for example, and can be used as sensors and in accelerometers that trigger an airbag in an accident. MEMS can also have biological applications, such as in microsurgery tools and drug delivery systems.

“Because of the sensitivity associated with light, we can match theory with experiment with much more precision at a very small scale,” Mohideen said. “This would help physicists better understand how a theory called the Lifshitz theory should be applied in experiments on the Casimir force.”

The Lifshitz theory predicts that the strength of the Casimir force between two surfaces is dependent on the distance between the surfaces (the smaller the distance, the greater the force). The theory also predicts how the number of electrons in the surface changes the force, and gives an explanation of how virtual photons interact with electrons.

Next in their research, the physicists plan to improve the sensitivity of their experiments using more precise detection techniques. They will also attempt to understand exactly how electrons and virtual photons interact.

The researchers’ study of the effect of light on the Casimir force appeared in the April 16 issue of Optics Express. Mohideen’s coauthors are F. Chen, UCR; G. L. Klimchitskaya, North-West Technical University, St. Petersburg, Russia; and V. M. Mostepanenko, Noncommercial Partnership “Scientific Instruments,” Moscow, Russia. The National Science Foundation and the US Department of Energy provided support.

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A charged elementary particle of an atom; the term is most commonly used in reference to the negatively charged particle called a negatron. Its mass at rest is me = 9.109558 x 10-31 kg, its charge is 1.6021917 x 10-19 C, and its spin quantum number is 1/2. Its positive counterpart is called a positron, and possesses the same characteristics, except for the reversal of the charge.
Electromagnetic radiation detectable by the eye, ranging in wavelength from about 400 to 750 nm. In photonic applications light can be considered to cover the nonvisible portion of the spectrum which includes the ultraviolet and the infrared.
A quantum of electromagnetic energy of a single mode; i.e., a single wavelength, direction and polarization. As a unit of energy, each photon equals hn, h being Planck's constant and n, the frequency of the propagating electromagnetic wave. The momentum of the photon in the direction of propagation is hn/c, c being the speed of light.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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